Rethinking A Podcast Top To Bottom

photo of Baltimore neighborhood
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Let me start by saying this: I have great admiration for Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick. They decided to put their podcast under a microscope. Why? To re-think the show top to bottom. That’s risky. It’s no easy thing to let someone pick your work apart in a group setting but that’s just what they’ve done. In the end, they may radically transform their podcast.

Aaron and Wendel produce Out of the Blocks, It’s an hour-long show from WYPR in Baltimore. For each show, Aaron and Wendel pick a block in Baltimore and interview as many people who live and work on that block as possible. They then weave together their interviews in a kind of vox pop on steroids. The end result is a really great sounding tour of a neighborhood.

Even though the show is successful, they decided to throw all the cards in the air and sign up for Project Catapult from PRX. Catapult is an opportunity for a handful of station-based podcasts to come together over the course of a few months and talk shop. What’s missing from our show? How can we tell stories better? How do we build audience? Is there a way to be sustainable? How many episodes should we produce a month? How long should they be? Every aspect of the podcast is fair game for discussion.

I spoke to Aaron and Wendel while they were smack dab in the middle of a one-week boot camp held at PRX’s Podcast Garage. Already they were percolating with new ideas for the podcast.

On this episode of HowSound, Aaron and Wendel introduce the show — what it sounds like, the rationale for their approach, etc. Then, in a few months, after they complete Project Catapult, I’ll have them back to hear what’s changed.

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  • Bobbi

    2.24.17

    Reply

    I look forward to new episodes of how sound and I’m always happy to see one, but I have to admit that there are times when Rob comes across pretty arrogant. I find it annoying that a lot of podcasts sound so same same’y so I like podcasts that are different and it really irritated me when he kind of snidely said, “where’s the story?” Everything doesn’t have to sound the same, I’ve heard him do that to other podcasts too and it just makes me mad. I get it, he’s an expert, he makes great shows, but that doesn’t mean that he needs to denigrate other people or act like he knows the only way to make a podcast. I hope that that podcast they were talking about in this episode doesn’t lose its 600 people who wanted to come to an event because they change it too much.

  • Rob Rosenthal

    2.25.17

    Reply

    Hey Bobbi,

    Thanks for listening and listening so closely!

    I think you and I may agree more than it appears. I agree – not every podcast should sound the same. That would be boring and uninteresting. Indeed, I think the vast majority of pieces featured on HowSound tend to be stories that play with the form. I chose to focus on those stories, in part, because I want to promote risk taking.

    And, I agree: I hope “Out of the Blocks” remains, at its core, the same. The idea of profiling the residents of a city block by block is a good one. The episodes sound great. And, I like that the podcast feels like a good, documentary photo essay. I might even go so far to say that the approach is reminiscent of the work of Studs Terkel. So, perhaps, after the producers go through Catapult at PRX they will decide “Out of the Blocks” is good enough as is and they’ll stay the course. Not a bad thing.

    Where you and I disagree, it seems, is around the question “Where’s the story?” I don’t believe asking that question implies that I think every podcast should sound the same. Nor do I believe poking around and asking a producer how and why they do what they do is denigrating, even a some-what pointed question like “Where’s the story?”

    I do happen to think “Out of the Blocks” might benefit from another layer on top of the “vox pop on steroids” approach. Maybe it’s focusing on a particular topic. For instance, take a block and ask questions about education or love or transportation or food or parenting or… Just a little something more.

    Or, maybe that layer on top might be news related. While that approach might quickly date a show, I think there’s a way to tackle a topic in the news, block by block, and assure an episode has a shelf-life longer than a week. Indeed, the people the producers are talking to are rarely heard from in the news, especially in the unfettered manner that they produce the show.

    Or, maybe the podcast might benefit from finding a narrative on a block. What’s a story that unites the people of that neighborhood?

    In fact, why not a news hook one episode, a narrative another, a topic on another, and a good ole “vox pop on steroids” on another?

    All this to say, as a listener, I’m looking for another reason to listen. Just like with a good book where I want to turn the page to find out what happens next, in this podcast, I want something to pull me in in such a way that I want to listen to the next minute, and the next. I want to go somewhere deeper than sonic walk around the block. Right now, I’m not convinced that a kind-of random meeting of one person after another after another is enough to sustain an hour of listening or several hours of listening over the course of a few episodes.

    I hope that helps clarify some of my thinking.

    Thanks again for listening!

    Cheers,
    Rob

  • Joe

    3.02.17

    Reply

    Interesting thoughts.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Studs Terkel recently – and how the way his pieces sound so different to anything we hear today. His tape is dirty (off-mic sounds seem to be common as he fumbled around with his kit in the back of taxis, lit his cigars etc), he didn’t do much narration in post, the conversation didn’t seem to necessarily intentionally go somewhere.

    There is a beautiful description by Syd in the comments below this piece on Transom about working with Studs http://transom.org/2010/working-with-studs/

    I don’t know that he really fits within the dominant Transom/public radio idea of what radio should sound like – linear story-driven, clean sounding, narrated, with music under the interviews etc. I don’t know whether Studs would win anything at Third Coast today.

    To me, there is space for both. I’m interested in oral history, I like listening carefully to audio which is just background sounds, just a rambling interview, just some guy with an interesting line or an unheard accent.

    PRX is great and Transom is amazing and Howsound is often inspiring. But why does everything have to sound the same?

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